The war in Ukraine and learning from Minnesotans who survived past wars

Aid worker carries woman during Russia Ukraine War
A Red Cross worker carries an elderly women during evacuation in Irpin, some 16 miles northwest of Kyiv, on March 11.
Efrem Lukatsky | AP

Updated: 4 p.m.

The war in Ukraine is reminding the world how quickly a normal life can turn to uncertainty, suffering and terror.

As Russia expands its air attacks into the western regions of Ukraine, residents of several encircled southern cities are going without food, water and power. The U.N. refugee agency says 2.7 million people, including more than a million children, have already fled Ukraine. 

Guest host Chris Farrell talks with a Ukrainian in Minnesota who is watching the war destroy his homeland and gets an update on the humanitarian crisis unfolding on Ukraine’s borders from the head of a refugee advocacy organization who just returned from a trip to Poland. Plus, we’ll learn how the trauma of surviving war has lingered for many Minnesotans who experienced previous conflicts. 


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  • Taras Rafa is from Western Ukraine and an engineer with Abbot in Little Canada. 

  • Eric Schwartz is president of Refugees International. He served previously as dean of the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota and as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration.

  • Jill Davidson is a social worker for the Center for Victims of Torture based in St. Paul. 

  • Amal Hassan is a psychotherapist and education coordinator for the Center for Victims of Torture in St. Cloud. Her family escaped war in Somalia.

Hear their conversation using the audio player above and read the highlights below.

Taras Rafa moved to Minnesota from western Ukraine in 2005 and many of his family members are still in Ukraine. His cousin, who plays clarinet for the Odessa Philharmonic Orchestra, has joined civilian defense forces.

“We’ve been really worried about him because knowing that it’s a port city, it has direct access from the sea, and it will be one of the first attacks from Russian forces, which actually happened. So he managed to take his family and drive to the Polish border, let them cross … and then he returned back, basically home, and signed up for the military service,” Rafa said.

Eric Schwartz, who is the president of Refugees International, said many of the refugees who fled Ukraine have been crossing into Poland.

“I met with Europeans from Germany, from Finland, from the Czech Republic, who had driven to Poland for the purpose of transporting refugees who wanted to go to other countries,” Schwartz said.

He said European governments have established a directive to allow refugees from Ukraine to live and work within the European Union for up to three years.

Amal Hassan, an education coordinator at the Center for Victims of Torture in St. Cloud, Minn., fled from civil war in Somalia when she was a young child — first to Kenya and then to Minnesota. 

“It was very cold, right in the middle of winter,” Hassan said. “Children from refugee and immigrant and asylum backgrounds have to negotiate between two cultures. … So that was the larger challenge … trying to maintain my own identity but also adapt to American culture.”

Ayan Abdinur called in to share her experience of coming to Minnesota when she was 11 years old. She, too, fled civil war in Somalia with her mother and newborn sibling. Their journey was long and dangerous, she said.

“I didn’t understand as a child at the time… that emotion, that trauma. But as I’ve grown, and looking back to these stories and remembering things, it just makes my heart feel, like, what my mom actually went through,” she said.

“We have many, many people here in our Minnesota community who’ve gone through these things, whose family members currently are experiencing these traumatic events,” said Jill Davidson, a social worker for the Center for Victims of Torture in St. Paul.

She said they are “finding ways to cope with these types of traumatic events, these types of losses, on a daily basis.”

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